Myler Wilkinson received an email from his Russian friend Alexander Vaschenko a little over a year ago, letting him know that he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer and probably wouldn’t be in touch again.
“He didn’t really tell me ‘Look Myler, I’m dying’ but it was pretty clear he was. And in a kind of grown up way, he let me know what was happening and then fell into silence,” he said.
Wilkinson, an English professor at Selkirk College, told the Star this story during a morning coffee on Baker Street. The next day he was scheduled to fly to Moscow, where he would attend a memorial service for his friend on June 11.
“What’s happening here is in Russian culture, when they die they have a funeral… and at one year they have another memorial. It’s a marking of the passage of the body and soul. It’s the last official memorial,” Wilkinson said. “I need to go and say goodbye to him in that place and I will.”
Without Vaschenko’s guidance, Wilkinson said he never would’ve completed his book of short fiction The Blood of Slaves.
“For about thirty years I had a real interest in Russian culture and literature. I met (Vaschenko) through various connections we had here in the Kootenays, through the college and the Doukhobor community. He was a professor at Moscow State University, which is like Harvard over there but better,” said Wilkinson.
“He seemed to like me and wanted to encourage me in my interests and over the years we travelled back and forth. He made my life in Russia possible.”
Wilkinson ultimately travelled with Vaschenko through Siberia and elsewhere, and eventually he was given an opportunity to teach at MSU. Recently the pair took a trip to Haida Gwaii to study indigenous cultures. It was with some hesitation that Wilkinson finally decided to share his manuscript with Vaschenko, shortly before his death.
“At first he told me he’d lost my stories in his desk, and hadn’t seen them for months,” said Wilkinson.
“I didn’t push it because I thought maybe he wasn’t interested. But then, after he was diagnosed, he told me he’d found them. He started to read them and particularly The Blood of Slaves and he said he was almost afraid to read the story because he wondered if I, as a good friend who wasn’t a Russian, would get it right or not. Whether I would understand who Chekhov was to Russians, who he was as a Russian man.”
“Then he said to me he was proud of me, because from our friendship I had come to understand something about what it means to be Russian,” he said.
Wilkinson’s story recently won a $2000 prize from The Fiddlehead, one of Canada’s foremost literary journals. The issue featuring his story been entered into Selkirk College’s library archives. The story recounts the final days of Anton Chekhov’s life, and was chosen as the contest winner by author Douglas Glover.
“Chekhov is the one writer who I don’t really feel is dead. I feel like he’ll step around the corner at any moment. He’ll talk to me. He was so alive in everything he thought and did,” said Wilkinson. “He was by far the funniest of Russian writers, and also perhaps the saddest.”
The title phrase of Wilkinson’s story comes from one of Chekhov’s most famous letters that he wrote to his friend Suvorin in January 1889. He tells of a young boy who has been whipped, tortures animals and behaves hypocritically towards man and God, all because he is conscious of his own worthlessness. The boy begins to squeeze blood from his body drop by drop until one morning he realizes the blood flowing through his veins is no longer the blood of his Russian serf ancestors but the blood of a free man.
“Chekhov’s life is defined by an understanding of blood,” Wilkinson said. “His heritage as a Russian serf–owned by masters; his contraction of a bacillus which would kill him, suffocating in his own blood; and then finally a reflection on a human truth, which is also an artistic credo: that blood is impure, humanity infected with the seeds of its own ruin–and salvation.”
“The blood of slaves run freely in each one of us, and may, with luck and effort, be squeezed out,” said Wilkinson.
Wilkinson first started writing his collection about three or four years ago, after spending years touring around Russia and visiting the grave sites of a number of famous writers.
“I went to where they lived and where they died. I had that privilege over many years. I would reflect on what I saw there, what I learned there, and I would make notes. I didn’t realize for a long time that I was doing research, the most careful kind of research into who these people were at the ends of their lives and what led up to their deaths,” he said.
Wilkinson said his approach to inhabiting the inner lives of these long-dead artists was to immerse themselves in as much information as he could, so he could really start to imagine what their day-to-day existence looked like.
“I wanted to know why they did their laundry on a particular day. Who they slept with and what they thought about it. I’m trying not only to inhabit the life but the very voice of the writer. Then I can go into the micro-history, the stuff I have to imagine,” he said.
Though his stories are about Russian writers, Wilkinson wrote the entire collection at his home overlooking the Kootenay River.
“There’s a famous novel in Russian literature called And Quiet Flows the Don. I live right above the Kootenay river with my wife and sometimes I laughingly say `quiet flows the Kootenay’ which maybe tells you a little about what the Kootenays means to me. It’s a place of refuge, for sure.”
Wilkinson said his interest in Russian literature has led him to a passion for social justice, or what he calls transformative justice.
“How do you achieve justice in an unjust world? That’s Tolstoy all the way,” he said.
Wilkinson said Tolstoy is his book’s most direct link to the Kootenays, as he was instrumental in aiding Doukhobors in fleeing to Canada. He first learned about this through his wife Linda, who is of Russian Doukhobor background
“When he was very old, in his eighties or late seventies, the Doukhobors were being treated very badly in Russia. They were pacifists and that was a militaristic state. They were being beaten, imprisoned, sometimes killed. They were trying to live this life of free pacifism, communal lifestyle and Tolstoy saw them as a people of God. He thought they were the very people he wanted to be but never could be,” said Wilkinson.
“Their descendants are living in the Kootenays today and they still admire Tolstoy immensely. In fact, they admire him more than any other non-Doukhobor and still do to this day,” he said.
Wilkinson is currently looking for a publisher for his book. To learn more about his story or to obtain a copy of the Fiddlehead, visit thefiddlehead.ca.